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Pope for Today
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Pope for Today

Friday 29 October 2021

The Holy Father’s Thought for the Day this morning showed exactly why he is the moral leader the international community needs to achieve the goals of Cop 26

Of all the world leaders who might have come to Cop 26, the deepest green is Pope Francis, a man often thought of as head of the most reactionary power on earth. Yet in 2015 he set out a programme, and an analysis, far to the left of any mainstream political party when it comes to the climate crisis. 

His manifesto on this, Laudato Sí makes fierce reading: “The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits and we still have not solved the problem of poverty.”

He sees it as a set of interlocking political, economic, and social crises as well as an environmental one: “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor … It is clearly inconsistent to combat trafficking in endangered species while remaining completely indifferent to human trafficking, unconcerned about the poor, or undertaking to destroy another human being deemed unwanted.

At times he sounds like a prophet raging in the wilderness:

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action, here and now.”

Not that he has much hope in this respect: his comments on previous summits are entirely scathing and he has no illusions about the gap between well-meaning laws and actions whether in the rich world or the poor one. Environmental standards are easily legislated, and just as easily ignored, he suggests.

This, he argues, is a moral failure: “Our difficulty in taking up this challenge seriously has much to do with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other. Parents can be prone to impulsive and wasteful consumption, which then affects their children who find it increasingly difficult to acquire a home of their own and build a family.”

It’s difficult to imagine a less popular program. That isn’t to say that he’s wrong, of course. The rejection of his message is exactly what you’d expect if he were right, and the Western world was indeed run by greedy, selfish people who hope for a technological solution to climate change which won’t make them any poorer. But Francis believes there is a moral obligation upon the rich not just to help the poor but to become less rich themselves.

“We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet,” he wrote in Laudato Sí.

How well has the Catholic Church lived up to his exhortations? He himself can hardly be faulted. Although he flies for his visits around the world, he lives with an ostentatious lack of splendour in a couple of rooms in a Vatican building usually used as a hotel for visiting bishops, leaving the grand papal apartments empty. He has repeatedly supported African migrants he sees as refugees from climate change; he’s taken Syrian refugees into the Vatican and washed the feet of Muslim women prisoners in a ceremony in Rome.

All this has helped to make Francis the most hated pope of modern times, and the people who hate him most are some of his fellow Catholics, especially in the clergy. There are reasons for this unconnected to his political and social sympathies, but his enemies are largely found on the Trumpite right and among their followers in Europe. 

They doubt, dispute and disobey his teaching. The ostentatiously Catholic Polish government, which hates migrants and loves coal, is the clearest European example. But only six US church leaders (five of them nuns) signed a letter to Cop 26 demanding a halt to oil and gas extraction, and nine bishops from Africa, only one of them from outside South Africa.

In practice all of the world’s billion Catholics are Protestants now, in the sense that they all put their conscience above papal authority. Most Catholics believe fervently in those portions of the teaching they agree with – but there are hardly any who agree with Francis about all of it. 

Either the social message or the sexual one is prioritised. No one seems to feel any real strain about this: as the daily Mass-goer Joe Biden, who supports gay rights and legalised abortion, has put it: “The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious, I’m going to shove my rosary down their throat.”

Nonetheless, the Catholic Church will remain important in the fight against climate change. It is the largest voluntary organisation in the world, responsible for a huge network of schools and hospitals in Africa. Even in this country, 43,000 Catholic parishioners have lobbied their MPs one way or another ahead of Cop 26.

The Catholic church has a capacity to link ordinary people in the rich and poor worlds shared only with other world religious bodies. Religiously motivated aid is largely immune to the criticism that it is poor people in rich countries enriching rich people in poor ones. And religions create bonds of imaginative sympathy across political boundaries just as powerfully as they can do the opposite. The body of Christ was the first imagined community.

The other special skill that the Pope can deploy is the ability to link and freight everyday gestures with moral and symbolic meanings. Praying is one obvious type of this. But across the UK more than 100 parishes are attempting to ensure that they diminish their environmental footprint. 4,500 Catholic churches and schools have signed up to buy renewable energy. Cafod, the Church’s international aid agency, is attempting to reach Net Zero by 2030, a difficult target for an organisation dependent on flying. “We’ll never not fly”, says Neil Thorns, Cafod’s head of advocacy; “but we want to reduce our flights as much as possible, and shift more power to the local and national organisations with which we work.”

Francis, however, is a lot more radical than that. On Thought for the Day this morning, he said: “We find ourselves increasingly frail and even fearful, caught up in a succession of ‘crises’ in the areas of healthcare, the environment, food supplies and the economy, to say nothing of social, humanitarian and ethical crises. All these crises are profoundly interconnected. They also forecast a ‘perfect storm’ that could rupture the bonds holding our society together within the greater gift of God’s creation.” 

Alone among the world’s leaders he distrusts both capitalism and the aims of capitalism. Few people take his words seriously, even within the Church. But it is a shame that he will not be coming to Glasgow to have his message ignored in person.

Photograph Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images

Andrew Brown is a writer and journalist. He was a founding staff member at the Independent and won the Orwell Prize in 2009 for Fishing in Utopia, a memoir about his life in Sweden.